Leo Scott was working on Val Kilmer’s one-man play about Mark Twain – as an editor and filming behind the scenes – when Kilmer asked Scott if he’d help him digitize hours and hours of video recordings that Kilmer had made over the years, going back as far when Kilmer was still at Julliard. Joined by Scott’s now co-director, Ting Poo, they came up with the idea that all these recordings could be a film. Something that juxtaposes Kilmer’s then-current process of stepping into the shoes of Mark Twain with all this footage of Kilmer’s process from past films like Top Gun and The Doors.
Again, that was the original idea. Then Kilmer was diagnosed with throat cancer and his time as Mark Twain was over. And so was this project, until it morphed into what it is today: a portrait of Kilmer today, still living life to the fullest, but just not quite the Kilmer we remember, for a few different reasons. This is a reflective, yet still playful, Kilmer. He’s lost a few pounds, his voice isn’t the same, but he can still speak volumes. (Speaking of his voice, Kilmer’s son, Jack, does the narration and it’s downright eerie how similar he sounds to his father. Both Scott and Poo said they considered not revealing who the voice was until the end of the film, but thought it might be too big of a distraction.)
As Kilmer looks back on his film career, yes, he’s aware we have probably heard the stories of some of his, let’s say, eccentricities on set. Kilmer’s mantra today, looking back, is that he was a passionate actor (this is true) who had a unique way of approaching a role and anything he did to get there only helped the character (this is debatable).
There’s one scene in particular that is truly uncomfortable. Now, to Kilmer’s defense, as he tells us in the documentary, during the filming of The Island of Dr. Moreau he was going through a divorce. Not only that, he was served divorce papers on the set of the film. So Kilmer is obviously going through something at this point in his life. By all accounts, filming of The Island of Dr. Moreau was not a good experience. When Kilmer signed on to the film (replacing Bruce Willis), Richard Stanley was the director. Kilmer and Stanley did not get along and Stanley was then replaced by John Frankenheimer. These two also did not get along and there is a scene in Val in which we see and hear a long argument between Kilmer and Frankenheimer. The source of their conflict at this moment seems to be Kilmer’s insistance of keeping his camera running as the actors prepare to rehearse. Frankenheimer wants Kilmer to turn off the camera. Kilmer does not want to turn off the camera. Things get … tense.
“When we cut first cut together that Moreau sequence, it was twice as long as it is now and just as much tension throughout,” says Poo. She continues, “What we really tried to do with each scene was represent what it was like for him in those situations. And so, in that respect, we didn’t avoid difficult situations, but we showed them as he experienced them and leave space for the audience to experience them as well. And so, we weren’t trying to editorialize so much on what’s right, or what’s wrong in this situation so much as like, this is this how this happened.”
Both Poo and Scott reject the idea they had to strike a balance with incidents like this. In that the main focus on the film is how Kilmer is still living his life well today and his own views of his past, not rehashing old feuds. “I don’t think we were thinking in terms of balance of, like, how much do we want of that stuff in there,” says Poo.
Though, this particular scene went on for 14 minutes. And Poo and Scott say they were nervous about showing it to Kilmer. “Well, yeah, I mean, what’s funny about that,” says Poo, “I think we did tell this film out from a perspective of looking back, and his perspective of looking back, and he didn’t try and veer us away from showing difficult situations, but he also doesn’t get hung up on them.”
So what happened when they showed this scene to Kilmer? In true Val Kilmer fashion, he didn’t think it was a big deal. Poo continues, “We were nervous to show it to him, because it’s just a very tense and hard situation for everybody involved to see. And so, we were all processing it and being like, ‘Okay, we’re going to show you something,’ trying to prepare him. And he could tell we were nervous about it. We did the whole thing. And then he looks over and he was like, ‘That’s what you’re so worried about?’ He was like, ‘I don’t know if it needs to be 14 minutes long, but that’s what happens.’”
So, no, we don’t get to see all 14 minutes of Val Kilmer and John Frankenheimer arguing on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau, but the portion we do see goes a long way.
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